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Japan in a Word



We have all been guilty of it at some point in our lives. Whether you’re travelling on holiday or simply treating yourself, we simply can’t help but to spend outrageously on food.

食い倒れ (kuidaore; to eat yourself into bankruptcy, or eat till you drop) is derived from a combination of the words 食い (kui; to eat) and 倒れ (taore; bad debt), and is often associated with the proverb 京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ (Kyō no kidaore, Ōsaka no kuidaore; dress yourself into ruin in Kyoto, eat into ruin in Osaka). You may be wondering, how does this proverb relate to 大阪 (Ōsaka)?

If you’ve ever visited 大阪, you would have encountered countless restaurants, bars and food stalls lined on the streets of 道頓堀 (Dōtonbori). In fact, did you know that they even have a museum dedicated to 大阪’s 名物 (meibutsu; specialty), たこ焼き (takoyaki), because that’s how serious 大阪 is about food! And if that wasn’t enough, landmarks including the neon Glico running man sign, the company famous for making ポッキー (pokkii; Pocky) snacks, the large moving crab and blowfish signs hanging above restaurants serve to further declare 大阪’s love for food.

Interestingly, 食い倒れ may also refer to くいだおれ太郎 (Kuidaore Tarō), a red and white clown standing on the streets of 道頓堀. Banging on a drum at the entrance of Nakaza Cui-Daoré Building, he came into prominence after the Japanese media broadcasted his costumes changes according to national events such as cheering for Japanese baseball teams. The next time you’re in 道頓堀, be sure to snap a photo with くいだおれ太郎 and spoil yourself to 食い倒れ!


Have you ever encountered piles of 塩 (shio; salt) heaped next to the entrance of a Japanese sushi restaurant? These 盛り塩 (morijio; salt piles) weren’t placed there by accident. In fact, salt piles are used to attract customers and drive off bad luck, a practice stemming from an old legend about a Chinese emperor.

塩 itself plays a significant role in Japanese culture, and has varying uses (besides food of course!).

In 神道 (Shintō) for example, 塩 is used as an agent for cleansing and purifying. With its white colour and clarity, this symbol of purity is thrown into the 土俵 (dohyō; sumo-wrestling rings) before and after tournaments. Did you know that over 45 kilograms of salt is thrown in a single day?

塩 is sprinkled over people returning home after a Buddhist funeral in Japan. It is believed that doing so will ward off spirits of the dead away from one’s home.

And last but not least, food! An indispensable part of Japanese cuisine, 塩 is used in food from 醤油 (shōyu; soy sauce) to sea salt ice cream. More importantly, the preservation of food, such as 梅干 (umeboshi; pickled plums) and other 漬物 (tsukemono; pickled things), signifies that 塩 can prevent decay. No wonder this multi-purpose ingredient has been revered since ancient times!


Wasei Eigo

Japan has a reputation for making quality “Japan-made” products, but who could have guessed that it also produces “Japan-made” English words? These types of words are called 和製英語 (wasei eigo): English words that have been transformed, remixed and adapted into Japanese to create new meanings.

Not to be confused with 外来語 (gairaigo; loan words), 和製英語 has a Japanese-spin on the meaning of the words. Think of it as Japanese in disguise!

Take for example, the word サラリーマン (sararī man; salaryman), which refers to white-collar workers, especially in Japan. The term is not based on an official English word, but rather, it combines the two English words “salary” and “man” to produce a new “English” word that is totally unique to the Japanese language. This is pretty amazing when you think about it.

和製英語 is common in Japanese, and is widely used in everyday conversation.

Put yourself to the test and try and to guess the meanings of some of these 和製英語! To check if you’ve guessed right, please refer to the answers below.


  1. コンセント (consento; consent)
  2. キャッチボール(kyacchi bōru; catch ball)
  3. ペーパードライバー (pēpā doraibā; paper driver)
  4. マイナスドライバー (mainasu doraibā; minus driver)
  5. シャープペンシル (shāpu penshiru; sharp pencil)
  6. プリクラ (puri kura; print club)



  1. A コンセント actually refers to a power outlet. Imagine a scenario where you are asked for consent to use your コンセント!
  2. This term has two meanings: one is to play catch, and the other refers to a banter-like back-and-forth exchange in conversation.
  3. This refers to people who hold a driver’s licence, but never drive, so their licence is just a meaningless piece of paper.
  4. A マイナスドライバー doesn’t refer to a vehicle operator; instead, it refers to a flat head screwdriver. And just so you know, a プラスドライバー(purasu doraibā; plus driver) refers to a Phillips head (or crosshead) screwdriver.
  5. You may have imagined a pencil that has been sharpened, but a シャープペンシル is actually a mechanical pencil.
  6. A プリクラ is a photo booth often found in arcades and gaming centres all over Japan, where a small group of people can take photos, decorate them and have them printed all in the one place. You may even have encountered some at your local arcade!



Gachapon is a coin-operated vending machine similar to a gumball machine, however, instead of gumballs, カプセル (kapuseru; capsules) containing おもちゃ (omocha; toys) are dispensed. The name “gacha” and “pon” derives from the sounds made when using the capsule machine. As you spin the dial, the machine makes a “ガチャガチャ” sound, and “ポン” is when the capsule pops out of the machine.

Since their debut in 1965 Japan, they have become so popular that there are even stores dedicated to ガチャポン machines such as ガチャポン会館 (Gachapon kaikan; Gachapon hall) in 秋葉原 (Akihabara). These stores often change the machines every month, so collectors can look forward to finding new toys each time. These toys include フィギュア (figua; figurines) from popular anime and manga, amusing key chains such as 猫寿司 (nekozushi; cat sushi), and even interesting collectibles such as underwear for your drink bottle.

The best thing about ガチャポン is not knowing which toy will come out next. Depending on the machine, it will cost around 100-500 yen per play, so if you ever come across these machines on your next trip to Japan, please give them a spin!


Giri choko

14 February is the universally recognised バレンタインデー (barentain dei; the Saint Valentine’s Day). In Japan, this is an occasion when women generally give chocolates to men who reciprocate one month later.

There are different types of chocolate giving which are categorised according to the relationship between the giver and the recipient. 義理チョコ (girichoko; obligation chocolate) is given to a colleagues and bosses as a token of gratitude, while本命チョコ (honmei choko; chocolate with true love) is reserved for a romantic partner. There is also 友チョコ (tomo choko) for 友達 (tomodachi; friends).

While 義理チョコ has a role of expressing gratitude and friendship in Japanese society, this commercialised annual event has placed emotional and financial pressure on some women.

Society 5.0

Society 5.0 is the Japanese government’s strategy to tackling challenges by deeply integrating 仮想社会 (kasō shakai; cyberspace) and the physical environment. Announced in 2016, Society 5.0 is also known as 超スマート社会 (chō sumāto shakai; Super Smart Society) and focuses on new technologies. Innovations such as人工知能 (jinkō chinō; artificial intelligence = AI), robots, big data and IoT (Internet of Things)  are expected to not only bring developments to domestic industries but also provide solutions to Japan’s social problems. These issues stem from the 高齢化社会 (kōreika; shakai; aging society) and various aspects of people’s daily lives, such as 交通 (kōtsū; mobility), 介護 (kaigo; caretaking), 農業 (nōgyō; agriculture) and 防災 (bōsai; disaster prevention).

Society 5.0 envisions Japan’s future society as a human-focused society and is the latest in the Japanese government’s series of proposals for improving Japan. Previous visions include 狩猟社会 Society 1.0 (shuryō shakai; hunting society), 農耕社会 Society 2.0 (nōkō shakai; agricultural society), 工業社会 Society 3.0 (kōgyō shakai; industrial society) and情報社会 Society 4.0 (jyōhō shakai; information society).

If you are interested in knowing more about Japan’s challenges, visit the Cabinet Office, Government of Japan’s website.

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